Tuesday, 29 January 2008



The artist’s large survey show, including new work, presently at S.M.A.K. Ghent (Belgium) and his well publicised merchandising over Christmas prompt this post. McCarthy emerged in the late 60s as a performance artist and his project has steadily spread from recording performance and displaying props and sets, to sculpture involving fabrication, even manufacture – hence the Christmas chocolates. Yet McCarthy’s concerns remain consistent and while hardly subtle, illustrate the changes to Performance Art over the period, their impact on Conceptual Art more generally and some severe limitations to project and artist.

McCarthy’s early performances achieved prominence for their pantomime-like outrages, explicit sexuality and violence in an uneasy black humour. Performance Art initially concerned itself with performance as no more than automatic or involuntary responses from a person to variously challenging situations or tasks (see also Post 22). However as the project gains momentum, more elaborate tasks and responses beckon. For McCarthy this involved masks, utterances and rudimentary props for body parts and fake blood. The artist assumed stock or stereotypical characters, required rudimentary sets, additional cast, but resisted plot or story for largely unmotivated or incoherent carnage, often accompanied by incessant babbling. Performance Art is clearly drawn closer to theatre by these concessions, in part signals the eventual dissipation of the project, but importantly, here performance and props are not just crude or hokey, but concerned with the destruction or damage to their very function, ultimately to performance. The emphasis is really upon the literal dispersal of person across a performance.

In this sense McCarthy reduces Performance Art’s minimal person to extreme bodily terms; the task to spreading its contents violently across stage or occasion. The work stakes out possession of stage or event by bodily fluid or waste, even as the person is mutilated or destroyed. And material expelled from the body, quickly invites material consumed, foods and liquids such as ketchup and chocolate that pointedly resemble bodily equivalents. All are freely scattered throughout a performance, drench increasingly elaborate sets, from Hot Dog (1974) to Bossy Burger (1991) using part of an actual TV Sitcom set to The Hogan Family, to the massive frigate constructed for the Caribbean Pirates performances (2001-5). The use of readymade sets reinforces the rage directed against popular or established norms. Yet this is balanced by the profound impoverishment to person, the meagre resources allowed performer. The performer in his work is not just challenged by occasion or stage, but must resort to sexual and other bodily engagement in order to meet it, often ‘leaves his mark’ only as the departed. This is pointedly continued even in later work using mechanised mannequins, such as Garden (2001) with its set salvaged from the 60s TV Series, Bonanza. Other works surrender more by this sophistication.

The sheer messiness and excess however, is typically compared with the precedent of Herman Nitsch or even Joseph Beuys. But McCarthy is not drawn to Christian or arcane ritual, tellingly, characters are inspired by children’s fiction and cartoons, from safely (and sadly) two-dimensional models. For the hostility directed toward them also reflects a dearth of options, they are models thrust into more full-bodied situations, clearly beyond their domains. Ultimately the theme shapes as one of inadequacy or over-ambition. In this respect, it is interesting that McCarthy remains acutely alert to contemporary developments and is occasionally drawn to parody and satire. With the acclaim of Jeff Koons’ sculptures for example, McCarthy then devotes more attention to sculpture, similarly adopting children’s toys as models, but only to introduce disturbing modifications as in Spaghetti Man (1993), the work thus neatly pacing, if not stalking, the interests of someone like Charles Ray as well.

Other works combine mask or cartoon-like heads with penis and testicles, returning to the crude equation between person and sexuality, while the recent shift to enormous inflatables projects his cartoon characters and props to the realms of popular marketing, (see also Post 49) much like his chocolate Santas. Contrast is sometimes made between the rough and ready nature of McCarthy’s performances and recordings and later, more focussed and sophisticated productions, by say Matthew Barney. For Barney the recording then requires elaborate presentation, while McCarthy remains content with a large screen in a darkened gallery. Each must maintain a delicate relation with gallery context and fine art. For McCarthy the transfer of his themes to sculpture to some extent tethers performance and recording this way, but must then divide his attention between them, court other compromise.

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